Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan oppose Obama's spaceflight plans

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, center, and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, right, testified on Capitol Hill.
Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, center, and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, right, testified on Capitol Hill. (Andrew Harrer/bloomberg)
By Ed O'Keefe and Marc Kaufman
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; 10:19 PM

The first and last Americans to walk on the moon reiterated opposition to President Obama's plans for the future of human spaceflight on Wednesday, arguing that the president's vision lacks specifics and proper review.

Plans advanced by the Obama administration will end most of NASA's Constellation program and rely on the commercial space industry to ferry future astronauts to the international space station. NASA would shift its focus to building a space capsule that would take astronauts to Mars and beyond.

But Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong and Apollo 17 Commander Eugene A. Cernan dismissed those plans in testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee.

"Nowhere do we find a commitment in dollars to support this national endeavor," Cernan said, adding later that "this budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and in fact is a blueprint for a mission to nowhere."

In a rare public appearance, Armstrong questioned Obama's motives.

"A plan that was invisible to so many was likely contrived by a very small group in secret who persuaded the president that this was a unique opportunity to put his stamp on a new and innovative program," Armstrong said. "I believe the president was poorly advised."

White House science adviser John Holdren said the Obama administration "is steadfast in its commitment to space exploration and to the mission of NASA." Holdren later insisted that Obama consulted with him, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and others before making a final decision.

"That doesn't mean that he took everybody's advice," Holdren said.

Armstrong, Cernan and Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell called Obama's plans "devastating" in a letter sent to him last month. Armstrong's visit to Capitol Hill earned special notice; the last time he appeared before Congress was at a House Science Committee hearing on March 11, 1971, according to Senate aides.

Despite opposition from the Apollo commanders, other colleagues -- including Armstrong's crew mate Buzz Aldrin, the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, and numerous other, more recent astronauts -- support Obama's plans. Armstrong, Cernan and Lovell also served in an era when the agency dominated a greater percentage of the federal budget and before the agency's mission added scientific responsibilities. NASA also has added costly safety precautions to missions since the Apollo missions, making it harder to fulfill the wishes of older astronauts.

Obama's plans, which increase NASA's budget at a time when most agencies' budgets are being cut, have irked lawmakers from southern states where most of NASA and its contractors are based. Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) worried that the plans would allow other countries to leapfrog ahead of the United States.

"I do not look forward to explaining to my children why the Chinese are putting their flag on the moon over ours," LeMieux said.

But Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) suggested that home-state concerns would be tempered by a tight federal budget.

"NASA's first mission must be to do what is best for the nation," Rockefeller said.

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